All together now: Tioman islanders and NGO members remove reef-smothering ghost nets. (Reef Check Malaysia)

Islander Partners Improve Resource Management

Locals must be involved in managing their own islands and island resources, says Julian Hyde. It is better for community empowerment and for nature.

“CO-MANAGEMENT of natural resources”: It is in the National Policy on Biological Diversity; it is in the Convention on Biodiversity (of which Malaysia is a signatory); it is in the Sustainable Development Goals.

It is everywhere, except in the communities where it matters most.

(Photo: All together now: Tioman islanders and NGO members remove reef-smothering ghost nets. Pic by Reef Check Malaysia)

I have been in the conservation field since 2006 when I helped to set up Reef Check Malaysia to realise sustainable management of coral reefs.

I know that traditional or hierarchical management of natural resources has worked in the past, but it has its limitations.

I am increasingly convinced that stakeholder participation in the co-management of natural resources is the way to go.

Having a say

Examples from around the world show the benefits of giving people who live in natural areas (particularly protected areas) a meaningful voice in decisions that will affect their lives and livelihoods.

The principles of stakeholder participation are well understood and the benefits are numerous.

When stakeholders get involved, they tend to comply with regulations, engage local communities in problem-solving, all of which lead to stronger resource protection!

But for marine parks in Malaysia, I still see opportunities to make participation in management by local communities more meaningful.

Already policy

The Malaysian National Policy on Biological Diversity states that “planning and management of biodiversity must be carried out in a participatory manner.”

But our marine parks have no effective mechanism to allow community participation in decision-making and management.

As a result, multi-stakeholder partnerships – which are emphasised in the UN Sustainable Development Goal 17 – are rare in our marine parks.

But there are a few places where co-management of coastal resources happens. There, we see how the benefits of partnerships make the effort worthwhile.

Beach cleaning is an island activity which Mantanani residents have taken ownership of. (Reef Check Malaysia)

Mantanani is a group of three islands off the west coast of Sabah, about 80km north of Kota Kinabalu. The largest island, Mantanani Besar, is home to about 1,000 people in two villages.

Traditionally, the islanders are fishers. However, harvests have declined in recent years due to overfishing and degradation of the marine ecosystem.

At the same time, tourism in Mantanani has soared from about 100 tourists daily in 2013 to as many as 3,000 daily in 2019, according to figures collected from tourism operators running trips to the island.

While this might sound like a boon for the local economy, in reality, the islanders’ have benefited little.

Left out

They have been mostly excluded by the business models used by tour agents operating out of Kota Kinabalu.

Mainland operators employ their own transport and staff and bring their own food for guests. Tourism money did not stay in Mantanani until 2019, when our homestay and other tourism-related programmes kicked in.

Mantanani needs a management system for its marine resources, but it does not have one because it is not a Marine Protected Area.

Reef Check Malaysia has been working on a management system there for several years now. And we have involved the local community at all stages of the process.

Mantanani locals describing their islands’ marine resources, emerging issues and how they might design a marine protected area. (Reef Check Malaysia)

It quickly became clear that the islanders can understand the concept of protected areas and their value. We have helped them to prepare a management plan and continue to discuss ways to gazette the island as a managed area.

It also became clear that discounting local stakeholders’ views can create huge problems.

The islanders had proposed a certain approach to management strategy, but when that changed partway through the process, it upset them.

Disregard at your peril

There was anger, disengagement, and a strong push-back against managed area solutions. Discussion broke down amidst a stalemate.

One group launched a petition to have government agencies and ourselves removed from the island; another group refused to talk to our team on the island; at its most extreme, islanders were pitted against islanders because there was no independent forum for debate.

We are still dealing with the fallout.

Reef ecosystem health is monitored regularly by members of the local Tioman Marine Conservation Group. (Reef Check Malaysia)

In the Peninsula, Tioman Island provides a good example of how the management of an existing protected area can be made more participatory.

In September 2019, the Department of Fisheries (DoF) launched the Reef Care programme to give communities a limited role in managing and conserving the marine resources near their villages.

DoF appointed 11 Reef Care partners on the Marine Park islands around Peninsular Malaysia. On Tioman, DoF partnered with the Tioman Marine Conservation Group (a local group we set up) and ourselves.

The Reef Care programme’s objectives, as described by the DoF, were to enhance cooperation between fishery officers and local communities in the management of coral reefs and to improve the socio-economic condition of the communities.

Model programme

The programme in Tioman has been a great success and provides a model for promoting community participation in other areas.

To date, Reef Check Malaysia and the Tioman Marine Conservation Group have conducted activities such as coral reef monitoring surveys, reef restoration, and ghost net removal.

We have also run best-practice programmes for tourism operators, education programmes in the school, and awareness programmes for tourists.

These activities engaged the islanders and empowered them. Encouragingly, locals are launching their own initiatives.

Taking ownership

In Kg Air Batang, the community has established a giant clam management programme to reduce poaching by other villagers and to create a new tourist attraction.

In Kg Salang, the ketua kampung (village head) is working on a turtle hatchery that will conserve turtle populations and attract tourists.

And in the south of the island, Kg Mukut wants to cast away its image as a traditional fishing community without tourism attractions. The village is re-branding itself as the best destination for trekking into the island’s interior.

Building capacity

Co-management has its benefits, but it also has challenges on the ground.

For one, islanders do not do meetings! So, there must be capacity-building programmes to help them develop skills that are necessary for effective participation – such as conflict management, communication, and so on.

Government agencies must also change their mindsets. If they want meaningful participation from the locals, agencies must give some of their power away to local stakeholders.

And finally, we need new mechanisms to facilitate co-management in marine park systems and give all stakeholders an equal say in how the islands are managed.

Local power

Local communities are interested in participating in resource management. They are keen, knowledgeable, and motivated.

We’ve shown it can work in Tioman, but there is nothing unique there – co-management can be a success anywhere.

Let’s implement all those policies on co-management and develop a more robust mechanism to empower local participation.

[Edited by Law Yao Hua]


Julian Hyde helped to establish Reef Check Malaysia which he now leads. A Brit who has lived in Malaysia for over 20 years, he also used to own a dive centre in Tioman.

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